Half-Life 2: Episode One review
Half Life 2 with about about... 90% of the epic removed.


Half Life 2 was an astounding game and it left a huge in impression on the people that played it and developers for a long time to come. It raised the bar, not just in its own genre but for the whole gaming industry. As such it’s no surprise that the ‘Episode’ games that would effectively follow on from Half Life 2 and complete the story gained an immense amount of hype. Half Life 2: Episode One is the first of these episodes, a sequel to Half Life 2 which many would argue could of just been DLC. Before we get into this review, I’d like to clarify that Episode One is an ‘Episode’ down to the finest detail. It lasts about 4 hours at most and has no new content that wasn’t in Half Life 2 already, with the aside of a single enemy that is only encountered two or three times at the beginning of the game. If you’re looking for a complete sequel to Half Life 2, you’ll be very disappointed.

The story of Episode One follows on from the controversial ending of Half Life 2, and in all honesty it makes less sense than almost anything else in the surreal storyline. The G-Man finds himself overpowered by a group of glowing purple Vortigaunt and you find yourself been excavated by Alyx and DOG from the rubble at the base of the citadel. How you survived the explosion at the end of Half Life 2 is never explained, although one assumes that the Vortigaunt teleported you and Alyx out of there. You discover that following your actions up at the peak of the Citadel you’ve plunged the thing into a reaction that threatens to destroy the whole of City 17, and the Combine have practically gone to full scale war with the remaining citizens for some reason. You and Alyx get in contact with Eli and Dr. Kleiner only to learn that if they don’t intervene in the destruction of the Citadel they’re not going to escape. So right off the bat you’re thrown back into the previous game’s final area, and have to make your way back to the core. Once there you succeed at delaying the Citadel’s explosion long enough for you to escape, and Alyx downloads some mysterious Combine data transmission which puts the two of you at the center of the Combine’s attention, effectively putting all their remaining troops on your tail. So right after risking your lives to stop the Citadel blowing up for a time, you’re now on the run to avoid been slaughtered by the Combine. Fantastic.

The story in Episode One is actually quite good with the aside of the beginning and the development of Alyx’ relationship with Gordon deepens considering it’s only hinted at throughout Half Life 2. That aside though Episode One feels like little more than a ‘bridge’ between Half Life 2 and Episode 2, merely setting things in place for what is yet to come. Whilst this is to be expected, it gives the game a constant sense of dragging on, you can’t help but feel you’re making very little progress, especially when compared to Half Life 2 where the game practically never stops with the progression. This is also shown in the setting, Episode One takes place entirely in City 17 and there’s a complete lack of anything new aside from the Stalker enemies which only appear in the Citadel at the beginning of the game. You can almost forgive the shortcomings in terms of story for Episode One due to the whole ‘episode’ aspect, but that doesn’t change the fact it simply feels downright slow and disappointing if you come into it following Half Life 2.

Looks perfectly safe.

Graphically Episode One pretty much looks identical to Half Life 2. Aside from the now dreary red sky and the ash all about City 17 the setting and design of everything is almost identical, although the city itself is now in ruins due to the Striders running rampant, and Antlions invading the ruins shortly after. There’s little to say about Episode One’s setting, you’ve been here before and there’s really nothing new to see, and unfortunately the ruins of City 17 are vastly more uninteresting than any of the individual areas of Half Life 2. The simply lack of variation in the environments you traverse will more than likely leave you longing to go through Half Life 2 again, the crumbling remains of City 17 just don’t cut it.

In terms of audio Episode One is no worse than the original, the music is still as ambient and atmospheric as ever, making the otherwise dull City 17 into a desolate area of sorrow, and the shadowy underground of the city a nerve-racking experience. Unfortunately the variety in the tracks is considerably more limited than in Half Life 2, and whilst Episode One certainly does the best it can with what it has to work with, at times you wish there were more parts of the game that would let the superb soundtrack expand a little. The voice work is the same quality as it was in Half Life 2, as are the sfx which is certainly unsurprising, but a positive aspect all the same.

The Stalkers are the Combine equivilent to the population of third-world countries.

Moving onto the gameplay Episode One is identical to Half Life 2 in terms of core mechanics, but completely different in terms of variation. Half Life 2 offered loads of different gameplay elements, environments and unique situations, every time you thought you’d seen it all Half Life 2 would up itself again and simply never stopped been epic. Episode One on the other hand has you wandering about dark car-parks and scavenging about ruined streets with nothing but shooting abseiling Combine Soldier and blocking Antlion burrows off with cars to keep you company. The short episode does have some highlights, such as fending off a horde of Headcrab Zombies in the dark whilst waiting for an elevator, and facing off against a Strider one on one, but the repetition kicks in very quickly. There’s just no variety in Episode One, and whilst the core mechanics are flawless they just aren’t enough. It also doesn’t help that most of the action is slow paced and generally small-scaled, and that puzzles practically remove themselves from the episode completely right after the beginning. The only reason Episode One is good at all is because the core mechanics themselves are enough to hold the experience up, but ultimately it’s just a small teaser to keep you entertained until the next game, and unfortunately 4 hours of very little interest just doesn’t do a good job.

Half Life 2: Episode One at it’s best is a decent little title that will keep you amused for the most of 3-4 hours until you move on to Episode 2. At it’s worst it’s a prime example of how even the best of gameplay mechanics can prove to be dull in bad execution. What made Half Life 2 so special was the near unmatched variation, where as Episode One offers practically none and what it does have feels incomplete. The fights against the Combine are too short, and often very small-scaled whilst the exploration of the desolated City 17 only ever becomes interesting when you enter the scarier areas and fend off Headcrab Zombies in claustrophobic hospitals. Yes, the Strider battle was indeed impressive and the horror sections were quite frankly nerve racking, but both feel measly in comparison to any of the moments in Half Life 2. for a four hour episode it isn't bad, but it really isn't that great, especially since you HAVE to play Half Life 2 first to understand anything, and thus you're going to come out of Half Life 2 with expectations Episode One simply won't fufill.

I suppose the best analogy would be to imagine that Half Life 2 is a whole human, and that Episode One is just the skeleton. Sure the skeleton may be the base that everything else is built upon, but without everything else it’s just a boring pile of bones that you’re only ever going to use to scare people when they open your wardrobe at night.

If you understood this scene, odds are you're on drugs.

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